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AHRQ envisions one-stop shop for SDOH data

Vika Strawberrika/Unsplash

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality plans to update its Social Determinants of Health Database this summer, experts involved in the project told the Health Datapalooza and National Health Policy Conference.

The database, launched in 2020, is designed to provide “one-stop, standardized community-level SDOH data from multiple public sources,” said AHRQ researcher Patricia Keenan. The goal is to enable analysis of community-level variations and help improve patient outcomes and health equity.

The updated resource will include new and more detailed data to help inform research and improve community and clinical decision-making.

Public health experts, writing in a 2019 editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, outlined the need for research connecting SDOH to public health and health disparities.

“Understanding how upstream social determinants of health influence the lived experience, how the body responds to social stress, how social and protective factors influence health, and how place can affect health are critical pieces of the puzzle that need to be understood,” they wrote.

The updated database will include US Census tract data along with existing ZIP code and county information. Community-level variables will span five domains – social, economic, education, physical infrastructure and health care — and include 30 topics.

“Bringing data together from such a wide variety of source datasets provides value for data users but requires a significant amount of data transformation and harmonization,” said Quentin Brummet, a senior research methodologist at the University of Chicago.

Multiple processes were needed to bring the SDOH information together, and the decisions were documented for users, Brummet said.

Shriram Parashuram, an economist at the University of Chicago, said the database can help advance patient-centered outcomes by linking it to other data sources or actionable policy research. Community-level data could be integrated into practice to improve patient and population health.

While all of the new information will expand the already detailed community SDOH landscape, the best use of the database may involve linking it to information at the patient level. That has yet to happen.

“The advantage to having such a rich dataset of community social determinants of health is that we are currently not doing a good job collecting individual level social determinants of health in either research or practice,” Parashuram said. “Work is still in progress and we have a long way to go.”

Parashuram said because the community-level SDOH data is so robust, however, it still potentially could help fill some of the gaps.

SDOH data can identify community risks in areas such as food security, housing and transportation, Parashuram said. It can be used to assess risks, such as providing housing and environmental data on asthma. Community organizations could use the data in making policy decisions, allocating resources and developing local partnerships. The data also can be useful to health systems in planning community interventions.

“Linking community-level social determinants of health with individual EHR data — through Z codes that capture individual social determinants of health – can provide health systems a broader context to really plan for community-level interventions based on truly coming to grips with the needs their populations really have,” he said.

Keenan said AHRQ’s goal for the database is to make community-level SDOH data easier to make decisions and improve health outcomes.

Ellen Beck is a SmartBrief editor who oversees newsletters focused on dentistry and medicine. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years for print, wire service and online publications, and in radio news. She specializes in health care reporting and analysis.